by Steve Zeisler
One of today's prime growth industries, it seems, is the business of the
professional commentator. Technology has made it possible for us to use
more words, both spoken and printed, than any previous generation. Can you
imagine what the ancients would say if they could hear the thousands of
people who are employed today making comments about everything under the
Commentators are a strange breed. They are not held accountable for what
they say. No one will burden them with following up on what they advocate.
Yet they appear on our television screens, and in print, offering expert
advice on everything from politics to sports. Movie critics and literary
critics, most of whom have never produced an original work themselves, make
a living by critiquing the latest movies and books. Pollsters inquire into
the thoughts and feelings of various groups of people, without any responsibility
to act on what they deliver. Thus the commentary industry grows apace, seemingly
accepted by all as a legitimate arm of our modern media.
The reason for this, it seems to me, is that people have a deep hunger for
wisdom. Everybody wants to know what the experts think, what the learned
and knowledgeable have to say about current events, whether they be politics,
religion, ethics, health, whatever. Thus there is a ready acceptance on
all sides for any morsel of worldly wisdom from the media philosophers.
In his first Corinthian letter, the apostle Paul has much to say about this
kind of wisdom. Worldly assumptions about what is true about life in all
of its manifestations are described by Paul as "the wisdom of the world."
In the passage from this letter which we will look at this morning, we will
look at the apostle's profound insight and direction as to how to view what
passes for wisdom today, and for what will supplant it tomorrow and the
The Corinth of Paul's day, as we have already seen, was a fiercely competitive,
immoral, high-energy place. The church which had been established in Corinth,
unfortunately, began to take on many of the negative characteristics that
were true of the culture around. That is so often the case with many churches
today: they don't look or act very different than the society in which they
are planted. The Corinthian Christians, as a result, were often competitive,
immoral, and sensually-minded. Paul's corrective letter to the church at
Corinth therefore is very valuable for Christians today.
Christians in many lands in this twentieth century consider it a joy to
be called to suffer for the sake of the gospel. For them, being truth-sayers,
and suffering persecution as a result, is very much a part of their Christian
experience. The Corinthians had very few problems in this regard; nor, I
would venture to say, do we California Christians. The books of Hebrews
and First Peter, among others, were written to Christians who were undergoing
persecution. But the Corinthian letters were addressed to people who were
in danger of being co-opted, not persecuted, by the world. Far from being
models of how Christians should live in a decadent society, they were infected
with worldliness themselves. We who live in a culture that in many ways
mirrors the Corinth of the first century--competitive, immoral and high-energy--will
find that this letter seems particularly applicable.
We pick up the apostle's thoughts in verse 18 of chapter 1. He opens with
a word on the cross of Jesus Christ.
For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
In verse 17, the apostle admonished that nothing he ever did or said should
be used to void the cross of Christ of its central place in the Christian
experience. The cross is the clearest demonstration of the justice, love,
power and wisdom of God. On the cross, the Son of God--God incarnate--freely
gave his life for those whom he would save. That is why the cross, and later
the resurrection of Jesus, is the very heart of Christianity. No wonder
the apostle declares in verse 18 that the "word of the cross"--bold
statements of truth about the cross and the resurrection-- have such such
a profound effect on humanity. He will go on to detail just what that effect
Notice, first, however, that the apostle in verse 18 divides the human race
into two categories, namely, "those who are perishing," and, "us
who are being saved." The ultimate issue confronting every human being
is whether he or she is on a path that leads to destruction and death,
or whether they are on the path that leads to abundance and life. Those
are the only two categories of people that matter; all other divisions and
classifications are secondary and trite by comparison.
Furthermore, note that this is a process; it is not totally settled yet.
"Those who are perishing" are involved in a process, making daily
choices that will lead them ultimately to that state. Thus it is impossible
to judge by appearances whether someone is involved in the process of perishing.
Likewise, it is equally impossible to determine whether one is in the process
of "being saved." They have not yet been glorified; they are in
process. Yet there is an incredible difference, a clear line of demarcation
between those two categories of people. Although that is not obvious by
outward appearances, the fact remains that, according to Scripture, there
are only two kinds of people.
What produces the divergence, the break in the road that sends people on
different ways, is the preaching of the message of the cross, the message
of God's love for mankind in Christ, the dastardliness of sin, the certainty
of death and judgment, and then, miraculously and mercifully, God's substitution
of himself to atone for our wickedness. That is the "word of the cross,"
and that is what produces the responses Paul has outlined: eternal death
or eternal life.
Secondly, notice in verse 18 Paul's reference to the "power of God."
"The word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness,..."
says the apostle. It seems ridiculous and embarrassing to preach that a
man who was crucified and who died in dishonor holds the keys to life and
death. What an apparently fallible concept to stake your life on! Yet Paul
maintains that this very message of the cross is "to us who are being
saved...the power of God." "The power of God." Paul is not
speaking of religion but of power. We have manifestations of religion all
around us--religious sentiment, images, rhythms, entertainment, activity,
programs, and so forth--but Paul is not referring to these human expressions
of the spiritual side of life. He is speaking of the touch of God, a personal,
life-giving encounter with God himself. "The word of the cross,"
according to Paul, is the "power of God." He is talking, not about
weakness or foolishness, but power--power that can change people; not ideas,
not history, not memories of people who knew God, but the actual presence
and power of God himself. That is "the word of the cross." And
through the preaching of that word, God gains entry into some people's lives
and changes them utterly; or else God's word is rejected by them as foolishness,
with the result that they perish.
In verses 19 through 25, Paul turns his attention to those who are in the
process of perishing; and in verses 26 through verse 5 of chapter 2, he
will speak about "us who are being saved."
First, "those who are perishing":
For it is written,
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside."
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this
age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the
wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God
was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save
those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for
wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to
Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of
God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
God, said the prophet Isaiah, is committed to the destruction of the "wisdom
of the wise." According to the prophet, God will destroy everything
than man can do through his own strength and abilities--build great buildings,
produce great works of art, express profound thoughts, manipulate nature
to serve his own purposes. That is the ultimate fate of anything which the
"wisdom of the wise," operating without the touch of God, brings
about on this earth. History proves the accuracy of these words. One civilization
replaces another, promising better things ahead, only to be relentlessly
replaced in its time. That too will be the fate of our own twentieth century
civilization. The wisdom of contemporary commentators, their prognostications,
their promises, will, in time, seem like so much babbling. Everything that
does not have as its center "Jesus Christ and Him crucified,"
will be destroyed, either by the next civilization, or at the coming again
of the Lord. "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness
of the clever I will set aside."
Having quoted Isaiah, Paul goes on to ask, "Where is the wise man?"
To put the apostle's question in modern terms, "Where is the expert,
the commentator, the insider?" Paul asks, "Has not God made foolish
the wisdom of the world?" Don't you see, he is asking, that even as
the wise man speaks, even before events and history reveal it, that what
the worldly wise are saying lacks substance, that their words do not lead
to life; that in the long run, as verse 21 charges, their words do not lead
to knowledge of God?
Last week as I read my newspaper, I was struck by the growing number of
people who are refusing to believe the experts' analysis of the AIDS crisis.
People are beginning to say to the framers of opinion--the politicians,
the medical community and others--with regard to AIDS, "I don't believe
you anymore." Doctors are accusing legislators of not doing what they
should, and giving their opinion as to what should be done in the face of
this crisis. But the people are beginning to respond, "You say you
are experts, but we doubt you have the power to do what we are calling upon
you to do." Those who used to worship medical technology are now hearing
the dread words, "We don't have any answers to this epidemic. There
is no quick fix in sight." It is becoming apparent that "the wisdom
of the world" has been found lacking in this instance.
Others advocate that AIDS victims be quarantined. Some even suggest doing
away with them. They want no part of the process of "suffering with
those who suffer" and "weeping with those who weep." But
these shrill voices will not carry the day either. Like their counterparts
on the other side, they too have come under suspicion, they too are hearing
the indictment, "You're not giving me the whole picture." How
apt is Paul's question in this context: "Where is the wise man?"
What is the wisdom of the world doing with regard to this deadly crisis?
People are becoming restive, sensing that the answers they are getting are
inadequate, perhaps even deliberately misleading.
Another kind of "expert" who has been taking his lumps recently
is the one who trades on sexual expression, the practitioners who maintain
there are no absolutes and no guidelines in this area. For them, consent
is the magic word. As long as adults consent, they maintain, then there
is no basis for talking about what is right or wrong, what is moral and
what is not. But again, people are beginning to say, "Wait a minute.
You're not giving me the whole picture."
We can even imagine one of those doubting people musing over what is going
on around him and finally coming to the conclusion that the only commentator
who ever told him the truth up front years ago was his own Christian grandmother.
She had talked frankly with him about these things. She had counseled him
that saying "no" at times was OK; that just because he wanted
to do something was no reason for doing it; that it was healthy to deny
himself sexual expression until he could do so in the proper context, that
of marriage and commitment. She had told him that sex was meant to serve
in creating oneness; that it was not an end in itself; that it was an expression
of love between husband and wife; that it used to be called "making
love," not "having sex." She had told him that the spiritual
implications of sex were much more profound than the physical. And her compassion
for sufferers was genuine and active. Perhaps this is why we hear of people
today beginning to doubt the experts. Instead, they are paying more attention
to godly models from their past--and their present--people who are in the
process of "being saved," and thus are ministering in the "power
That is the thrust of Paul's argument in this section. In every age the
experts, the framers of social thought, the avant garde hold forth with
their opinions. But a careful listener will think to himself, "Wait
a minute. 'Where is the wise man?' I'm not getting the whole truth here."
The problem with the wisdom of the world, as verse 21 so clearly declares,
is that it does not lead to a knowledge of God. It does not have power to
direct one who is perishing from the path leading to death to the path that
leads to righteousness and life. And the reason it fails to do so is that
it ignores God, the source of all life, wisdom and truth. No matter how
knowledgeable are the sages and opinion-makers, failure to deal with the
source of all knowledge is a recipe for failure. Stanford University is
about to embark on a billion-dollar fundraiser. We can be certain that among
all the energies expended on that enterprise there is not one word being
said about the fact that what people need to do is learn in humility to
acknowledge the Living God and his Son Jesus Christ. Can you imagine how
little money they would collect if they adopted Paul's words, "The
foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger
than men," as their slogan? But that is not at the heart of their concerns.
Failure to deal with the "foolishness of God," however, says Paul,
is what is lacking in the wisdom of the world. How can man possibly hold
that wisdom which does not lead to a knowledge of God is wisdom at all,
or that it will avail anything in the long run? It is a false wisdom, a
wisdom that is wise only to "those who are perishing."
The two groups, the "Jews [who] ask for signs," and the "Greeks
[who] search for wisdom" demand those things in preference to what
God is offering. Those (whether Jews or not) who "ask for signs"
are really asking the question, "What's the bottom line?" In other
words, "Do you get results?" The Jews who challenged Paul sought
a demonstration of power to authenticate what one was saying. Yahweh had
delivered them from Egypt by opening the Red Sea for them and then drowning
their pursuers. Their God was a God of demonstrated power and accomplishment.
They find their counterpart today in those who would say, "Results
are what I want, not theories or emotions. Well-meaning failures need not
apply." To such, the message of Christ crucified is a "stumbling
The second group Paul highlights are the seekers after wisdom, those who
pursue intellectual artfulness and the ability to gather up and make sense
of various philosophical theories. Whether anything productive derives from
their pursuits is beside the point. The precision of the thought-making
process is sufficient for them. To those who held that view, of course,
the story of Jesus' life and death was so much nonsense. An enigmatic rabbi,
surrounded by his uneducated followers, preaching a message of trust and
humility, was something no educated Greek could abide. It was, as Paul says,
"foolishness." How could such a message possibly compare or even
find a place in the grand scope of man's discoveries? they asked.
So the message of the cross, a crucified Messiah, was a stumbling block
to the Jews who sought signs, and foolishness to the Greeks who worshiped
at the shrine of wisdom and intellectualism. But that very message of the
cross was what Paul was offering to both Jews and Gentiles dying of a terminal
disease. The cross of Christ was the power of God to rescue them if they
would but believe in him, says Paul, "because the foolishness of God
is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." God
had found a way in Christ to rescue man from his own wisdom.
Next, Paul turns his attention to those who "are being saved."
He refers, first, in 1: 26, to the experience of the Corinthian Christians,
saying, "consider your calling," and then, second, to his own
experience (2:1), in the phrase "when I came to you." Here, then,
the apostle reflects on the church in Corinth, helping those "who are
being saved" think through their own experience; and then telling them
a few facts about Christian leadership, what was going through his mind
as he preached the message of Christ crucified, the foolishness of the cross.
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many
wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has
chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen
the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the
base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that
are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast
before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom
from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just
as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."
Paul is telling the Corinthians that when they came to Christ, not many
of them were impressive according to the standards of the world. Not one
among them was an automatic first place finisher in any endeavor. They were
not particularly wise by worldly standards; they were not impressive and
mighty. "Ordinary people," is what we would call them today. They
did not take their seats on the boards of major corporations; they did not
wield great power in the market-place. Paul may even be saying, by extension,
to those among us who may be impressive, those of us who may have the right
credentials according to the world, that it was not those successes which
led us to Christ. On the contrary, it was our periods of failure, the acknowledgement
of our own inadequacy that finally brought us to repentance and to faith.
"Consider your calling, brethren," says Paul, "you are not
a community that has any right to be impressed with yourselves. It was your
failure, not your success, that brought you to Christ."
The whole thrust of Paul's argument that is centered in verses 29 through
31, of course, is that there is no room for boasting. No man can boast before
God. It is God's doing that we are in Christ Jesus. Therefore, says Paul,
quoting the prophet Jeremiah, "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."
If you feel like waving the flag, if you feel like beating the drum for
anyone, the Lord is the one you should boast in.
Many people come to church because they want to hob-nob. They are on the
look-out for people who are wealthy, powerful, charming, good-looking, whatever,
and they gravitate towards such in an effort to advance themselves and feel
more important. They have no thought for the value of being part of a body
of believers. They are more interested in power, influence, and popularity.
But Paul is saying here that if one is really a Christian, there should
be no one in the body who is more attractive and impressive than any other.
We have just seen that he has told the Corinthians that not many of them
were wise, mighty, or noble, and that even if a few among them were some
of those things at one point, they had since come to the realization that
that was a hindrance, if anything, rather than a help unto repentance and
faith. If we seek out other Christians because their company will reflect
well on ourselves, then we are losing our way; we are missing out. That
is not why we meet together as a body. "Let him who boasts, boast in
I would like to point out here that when Paul says that the wisdom of the
world is faulty and failing, he is definitely not suggesting that Christians
should not think for themselves. There is a misconception abroad that Christians
are ignorant people and that they revel in it. They don't ever think for
themselves, come up with an original thought, travel anywhere so as to learn,
goes this theory, but remain rigid, uptight and anti-intellectual. That
is not at all what Paul is saying here. Rather, he is referring to a wisdom
that is arrogant, a wisdom that refuses to "boast in the Lord,"
one that exalts human efforts and accomplishments to the exclusion of God.
Far from being against all wisdom, Paul even says in 2:6 of this letter,
"Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however,
not of this age..." There are many things in this world which can engage
the minds of Christians. God expects us to use our minds to pursue learning
and adventure. Having said that, however, what the apostle is at pains
to remind us is that we should not boast in ourselves and our wisdom to
the exclusion of God.
Having asked his readers in Corinth to consider their calling, the apostle
now goes on in this closing section to speak of his own experience.
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority
of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined
to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And I was
with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and
my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration
of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom
of men, but on the power of God.
What a great passage this is for preachers! As I worked on this message
last week, I felt embarrassed over the amount of time and effort I sometimes
expend in order to sound good; not to clearly expound the truth with honesty
and hope, but to look and sound good while I was doing it. But that is the
very thing Paul says he was determined not to do. He made a mental note
to himself to resist trying to persuade people of the truth of the gospel
by rhetoric, style of speaking or visual imagery. And he did this, of course,
because he did not want their assent to the truth to be based on anything
but the Spirit; not on the human instrument, not on the manner of delivery.
Paul confesses that he is not a great orator, that he did not "come
with superiority of speech or of wisdom." He did not generate enthusiasm
among his hearers by his powers of speech. On the contrary, he confesses
he spoke in "weakness and in fear and in much trembling." He had
arrived in Corinth because he had been beaten and kicked out of several
other cities. He didn't want a repeat of those experiences, so he went around
the city, as he says, "in fear and in much trembling." How can
we say it any better than the words of Paul himself, "My message and
my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration
of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom
of men, but on the power of God"?
Let me conclude by suggesting some implications found in these verses. First,
the gospel will never win rave reviews among those who are perishing. Christians,
as a result, should not spend a whole lot of time and energy trying to convince
reluctant listeners to like what they won't believe. For them, the message
has an inherently objectionable and ridiculous quality about it. If that
is their stance, no amount of words or argument will convince them otherwise.
Also, as Christians we should "Consider [our] calling, brethren..."
What were the circumstances that surrounded your coming to Christ? Where
and when do you most often meet with the Lord? Is it when you make a big
sale? Or when people think most highly of you and your accomplishments?
Is it then you find intimacy with God? Or is it when you find yourself at
your most inadequate and needy that you discover the touch of God in your
Then, how do you treat others in the body of Christ? Do you seek out the
high-born, the popular and the attractive for fellowship? Or do you have
a sense that you are part of a needy and inadequate group of believers who
worship a great Lord?
Next, I suggest you examine Christian leaders for evidence of Paul's approach
to ministry. Do they, with Paul, "determine to know nothing among you
except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified"? Or is their ministry based
on human ability, impressive appearance, and rhetorical style? What is it
that propels leaders into leadership? What ought to propel them is their
willingness to know Jesus Christ and proclaim him crucified in weakness
and humility. That is the type of leader you may safely allow to influence
and mold your thinking.
Finally, we must, like Paul, determine to do these things. It will never
be easy to live in this world and yet reject the wisdom of the world. We
will always face temptation to gain the approval of others, to not be considered
foolish and backward. But Paul "determined to know nothing...except
Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." He prepared his mind in advance to
not sell out for the sake of popularity or for any other wrong reason. I
urge all of us to follow the apostle's example. Let us determine afresh
to boast only in the Lord in all of our actions. Let us resist the temptation
to seek the acclaim of men and instead embrace the "foolishness of
the message preached"--the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Catalog No. 4060
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
October 4, 1987
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